U.S. Coast Guard Takes Over MC20 Spill Response

Sheen near the MC20 site (file image courtesy USCG)

Published Dec 17, 2018 5:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard has taken over the task of containing the long-running Mississippi Canyon Block 20 oil spill, which may well be among the largest oil releases in North American history. 

According to the Coast Guard, the MC20 site may be releasing oil at a rate of "hundreds of barrels per day." It has been active since 2004, when Taylor Energy's MC20 platform was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan: storm surge from the hurricane set off an underwater mudslide that destroyed the platform and buried its subsea infrasructure under 100 feet of sediment. 

In 2007, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement directed Taylor Energy to remove the platform deck, remove sub-sea debris, decommission the oil pipeline, attempt to contain the leaking oil, and plug the wells that were deemed highest risk. Before beginning this costly remediation work, Taylor elected to cease its operations and liquidate its business assets. BSEE viewed this decision as a potential compliance risk, and it ordered Taylor to post a $666 million bond to cover decomissioning costs. Taylor completed the ordered scope of work in 2010. 

In 2015, SkyTruth and the Associated Press used satellite imagery to conduct an independent analysis of the size and extent of the ongoing leak. While Taylor had characterized the spill as a seep, the investigators estimated that the well had spilled up to 1.4 million gallons over the course of 11 years. After the AP published its report, the Coast Guard revisited its own analysis of the scope of the pollution from MC20, and it revised its estimate upwards by a factor of 20. Last year, it raised the estimate again by a factor of five to 13, potentially putting the 14-year-long Taylor spill in the ranks of the largest ever recorded in North America. 

Taylor strongly disputes the Coast Guard's estimates. It is engaged in ongoing litigation with the federal government in an attempt to recover $430 million in as-yet-unspent security bond funds, and it asserts that it has completed the required scope of work.

In October, the Coast Guard-designated federal on scene coordinator (FOSC) issued an order requiring Taylor Energy to propose a plan to install a containment system to address the ongoing leakage. One month later, the FOSC took over partial authority for containing the spill and contracted its own salvage team.

Under the Coast Guard's direction, the new contractor will conduct a site survey, fabricate a containment system, and install it at the source to start collecting the oil. At present, the team is in the planning phase. Weather and sea state will dictate operations, which will involve extensive dive and ROV operations.

“While the safety of response personnel is paramount, we don’t want to delay response activities,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kristi Luttrell, Federal On-Scene Coordinator (FOSC) for the MC20 response. “We plan to leverage every weather window available from now until the system is installed and collecting oil."